In a top secret operation, the U.S. Defense Dept. is conducting the first deep space inspection of a crippled U.S. military spacecraft. To do this, it is using sensors on two covert inspection satellites that have been prowling geosynchronous orbit for nearly three years.
The failed satellite being examined is the $400 million U.S. Air Force/Northrop Grumman Defense Support Program DSP 23 missile warning satellite. It died in 2008 after being launched successfully from Cape Canaveral in November 2007 on the first operational Delta 4-Heavy booster.
Since the U.S. is now demonstrating the ability to do such up close rendezvous and inspection of American spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, it means USAF now has at least a "call up capability" to do the same to non-U.S. spacecraft like those from Russia and China.
The operation, at nearly 25,000 miles altitude, reveals a major new U.S. military space capability, says John Pike who heads GlobalSecurity.Org, a military think tank.
"There is not much we do in space any more that is really new, but this is really new," Pike tells Spaceflightnow.com.
Although being used in this operation to obtain data on a failed U.S. spacecraft, such inspections of especially potential enemy spacecraft, is something the Pentagon has wanted to do since the start of the space age, Pike says.
The Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin "Mitex" inspection spacecraft involved are part of a classified Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) technology development program. When initially launched on a Delta 2 from Cape Canaveral in 2006, the project involved maneuvering around and inspecting each other at geosynchronous altitude.
But there is no unclassified data to indicate whether the two spacecraft may have secretly paid visits to one or more non-U.S. spacecraft in the geosynchronous arc that circles the Earth at about 22,300 miles altitude, much like the Capital Beltway circles Washington, D.C.
A U.S. Defense Dept. analyst speaking on deep background says although a visit to a non-U.S. satellite is doubtful, the demonstration will cause concern, especially among Chinese government military analysts in Beijing. He said they will see the capability as a new U.S. intelligence tool that could theoretically also enable a sneak anti-satellite attack in geosynchronous orbit.
IF the Mitex sats were actually able to go and inspect satellites, it's a fascinating capability that we've developed with a lot of potential.